24 error messages sent by Flight 447

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Saturday, June 6, 2009

French authorities have today revealed that Air France Flight 447 sent 24 error messages shortly before the plane disappeared during the flight between Rio de Janeiro and Paris with 228 people on board. They also said that the plane's auto-pilot was not active, although they say that from the error messages it is impossible to determine the reason for it being inactive. The crash is said to be the world's worst aviation disaster since 2001.

An Air France Airbus A330-200 aircraft, similar to the one used for Flight 447
Image: Christopher Weye.

Officials have still not determined the reason for the flight's disappearance or located the wreckage of the plane, but have said that it was flying through an area of "powerful cumulo-nimbus" clouds. The authorities continued saying, "these are found frequently in this area and in normal climactic [sic] conditions". However other meteorologists said the jet was entering a zone with unusual storms and 100mph updrafts which could have formed a vacuum, sucking water up from the ocean.

Fourteen of the error messages sent by the system were done so within a period of one minute, 2:10 a.m. – 2:11 a.m. UTC. It is thought that some of the error messages are related to the flight speed and controls related to auto thrust. Paul-Louis Arslanian, director of the French air accident investigation agency, said that the error messages indicated systems had shut down one after another. He also confirmed that the plane in question had encountered difficulties with measuring its speed and that Airbus was currently completing "a programme of replacement, of improvement".

Airbus and Arslanian insist that planes are still safe, however Airbus have since re-sent information regarding difficulties with calculating speed and confirming their advice in such situations.

Flight path of Air France Flight 447 on 31 May/1 June. The solid red line shows actual route, the dashed line is the planned route after the last radar contact.
Image: Mysid.

Previous announcements by the Brazilian air force that they had successfully located part of the wreckage of flight 447 have turned out to be false after ships recovered unrelated debris from the sea. After recovering debris from the sea, including a cargo pallet and two buoys, Brigadier Ramon Cardoso, the director of Brazilian air traffic control said, "[U]p to now, no material from the plane has been recovered."

He continued, "We confirm that the pallet found is not part of the debris of the plane. It's a pallet that was in the area, but considered more to be trash. The pallet was made of wood, and the Air France Airbus A330 did not have any wooden pallets on board. That's how we can confirm that the pallet isn't part of the remains of the aircraft". It is thought the pallet came from a passing ship which is also being blamed as to the reason for the oil slick spotted in the area.

David Learmount, operations and safety editor of Flight International magazine, said: "The fact that the autopilot was not working is not the cause of this accident", continuing by saying it is "not at all unusual" for the autopilot to cut out, alerting the pilots with a loud warning, adding "it's not the cause, it's the symptom" of the accident.

He also said that it was "designed to cut out at any time that it receives conflicting messages, which we know it was" and that "It's designed to cut out rather than controlling the airplane in an unsafe way - it's not an intelligent system, it doesn't know which of the data are correct."

A flight data recorder

Rescuers have long since given up on attempting to find any survivors instead now trying to locate and recover the wreckage of the flight and more importantly the flight data recorders, without which they say they may never know what happened to the flight. The process of recovery is expected to be difficult with the seabed reaching depths of 3,000 to 4,000 meters. Both American and French specialist equipment has been sent to the area with the aim of recovering the recorders, however French officials say that the locator beacons attached to the boxes could possibly have become detached by the force of the impact.

Speculation has been rife as to the thought cause of the flights disappearance, ranging from a direct lightning strike to weather in the area, however recently a Spanish pilot has said, via his airline Air Comet, that on a flight in the area he saw an "intense flash of white light". The report, initially released by the Spanish newspaper El Mundo and then confirmed by AFP also said a co-pilot and passenger also saw the bright light.

"Suddenly, we saw in the distance a strong and intense flash of white light, which followed a descending and vertical trajectory and which broke up in six seconds" the unidentified captain said.


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